European heads of state have been largely silent in the wake of Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia, with one prominent exception: Prime Minister Charles Michel, the French-speaking liberal politician who governs Belgium alongside the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or N-VA), a Dutch-speaking nationalist party whose grand strategy is to separate the north region of Flanders from the Belgian state.
“Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue #CatalanReferendum #Spain,” said Michel in a tweet written in English on the Sunday morning of the Catalonian referendums.
Only two years ago, Belgium’s Minister for Justice Jan Jambon, a member of the N-VA, warned that the Belgian government risked a crisis if it did not show support for the Catalan referendum and failed to respect its outcome.
But while opinion makers and political leaders in Belgium have kept a close eye on events in Spain, the Catalan spark has not lit a bonfire among independence supporters because the two movements have very different backgrounds and statuses.
Belgium, a country of 11 million people, is split into two distinct halves, Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. The prosperous Flemish north holds historic animosity for its southern neighbor, the former heartlands of continental European coal and steel production.
The Belgian nation was effectively invented in 1830 by a group of French-speaking Walloons, who forbid the use of Dutch in political and administrative life, relegating native speakers to second-class status in the country for nearly one hundred years.
However, fortunes shifted to the north after deindustrialization in the 1960s emptied the mines of Wallonia and turned the region into one of Western Europe’s poorest.
The Belgian government was ever since transformed, as state reforms designed to protect the rights of Belgium’s distinct linguistic communities eventually led to the creation of separate governments and parliaments for Flanders, Wallonia, and the bilingual capital-region of Brussels.
Today, the most powerful political party in the country is the N-VA, a centre-right nationalist party whose manifesto explicitly calls for Flanders to separate from Belgium and become a sovereign member state of the European Union.
Together with Vlaams Belang (Dutch for Flemish Interest), a Flemish political party farther to the right of the N-VA, Flemish separatist parties gain around 40% of all votes in the region of 6.5 million people.
However, unlike its sister movements in Ireland and Catalonia, Flemish separatism traditionally worked with the institutions of the state, as progressive reforms have seen the Flemish successfully gain more and more autonomy over their own lives.